Mystery Bird: Say's Phoebe, Sayornis saya

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[Mystery bird] Say's Phoebe, Sayornis saya, photographed in Arizona. [I will identify this bird for you tomorrow]

Image: Richard Ditch, 2006 [larger view].

Date Time Original: 2006:12:27 13:35:48
Exposure Time: 1/319
F-Number: 8.00
ISO: 200

Please name at least one field mark that supports your identification.

Rick Wright, Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, writes:

What a sweet, gentle little bird, perched alertly on a sunflower: attitude and habitat tell us we're looking at one of the open-country tyrannids.

The black tail, muted underparts, and pale breast might recall one of the yellow-bellied kingbirds, but the tail is proportionately too long and, strikingly, the tarsus too thin for any of them. The round head, short bill, and overall gentle aspect direct us instead to the phoebes.

Only Say's Phoebe shows such a strong contrast between the black tail and the gray-brown body; the dull orange of the undertail and belly are also characteristic (though those of us schooled with the 1947 Peterson will remember his warning about Eastern Phoebes stained by "red Georgia mud").

The only real confusion species is neither Black nor Eastern Phoebe, but another tyrannid closely related to the phoebes, Vermilion Flycatcher. In plumages other than the red male's, that bird's black tail and softly colored vent and belly can make it resemble Say's Phoebe; though Vermilion Flycatcher shows a greater predilection for damp habitats, both are often found in dry, open country. The fine streaks on the breast of Vermilion Flycatcher can be hard to see at any distance, but there are a number of conspicuous differences that readily distinguish the two species. Vermilion Flycatcher's black tail is shorter, squarer, and tends to be wagged and flicked; Say's Phoebe spreads and shakes its tail. Vermilion Flycatcher typically shows two narrow, well-defined wingbars, while Say's Phoebe's wing has a diffuse whitish patch on the greater coverts and, in flight, strikingly translucent remiges. Say's Phoebe has a distinctively blank facial expression, while even the dullest Vermilion Flycatcher usually shows a shadow of the adult male's mask, giving it a more earnest visage. And while Vermilion Flycatcher prefers to hunt in short sallies from a low perch, Say's Phoebe is a much more aerial forager, swooping and hovering like a bluebird over the open fields.

Say's Phoebe is typically thought of as a western specialty, but it has established a wide vagrancy range across the continent, so should be on every birder's mind anywhere in North and Central America.

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I'm going to say it's a phoebe, something that could be confirmed in the field either by its constant tail dipping, or by hearing it sing "Smelly Cat." It looks to me like an eastern phoebe, based on its dark head, though its Arizona location argues otherwise.

It looks like a Phoebe to me, my best guess (since I have never seen one except on as a photograph in my Ornithology class) would be Say's Phoebe.
Keys for me would be gizz--but, the gray and pale orange breast and black tail make appear to be to be a Say's

Say's Phoebe. Shape is pretty distinctively Phoebeish, and others lack buffy/orangish color on belly.

Looks like 'Says Phoebe', I've never seen one only in books.

By Rusty Davis (not verified) on 01 Jan 2009 #permalink

Well, I'm new to this stuff. But that could be a Mockingbird perched on the dried sunflowers in my (Central Texas) backyard. Shape, color and long tail feathers lead me to say so. I'm guessing the yellow tint is a photographic artifact from the seed heads.

Hee! I'm always late to the party. I keep hoping to be the first one to jump in with the correct ID one of these days. It's a Say's Phoebe. The rusty underparts are my field mark. I love these birds. Well, I love all phoebes, but these especially as I see them occasionally, but not frequently enough that it isn't a treat every time I do see one.

I am not sure what this cute little bird is, but I know it is NOT a mockingbird. For one thing, the tail is too short. A mockingbird does not have the buff colored belly either, and a mockingbird is longer. Mockingbirds always look a bit underfed to me.

By Nancyjane (not verified) on 02 Jan 2009 #permalink

I immedately thought it was an Eastern Phoebe, which I haven't seen in decades. (There seems to be a pattern here of people thinking it's the phoebe they don't usually see.) It doesn't look as brown or as slim as the Say's Phoebes I see all the time, and its belly looks yellow to me. However, Mom's Peterson guide and Audubon photographic guide say Eastern should have a much paler belly, and anyway I'm color-blind and should be trying to ID birds based on brown or gray, so I don't know.

By Jerry Friedman (not verified) on 02 Jan 2009 #permalink